Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)

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A "Quiet Night" At
Orwell Park Observatory

Quiet please, sound on!

The stillness of the evening air was interrupted by a single beep from a tape recorder.

Roll camera!

A second voice boomed back: Camera rolling! Scene 50 take one. A clap board was closed with a sharp report.


Everyone waited with baited breath for the ensuing drama to unfold. But the event was not the shooting of a new multi-million dollar film, but a prospective Steven Spielberg directing a film crew in the dome of Orwell Park Observatory on Wednesday 14 August 1985, taking considerable glee in using the entire repertoire of movie cliches. The subject being filmed was ostensibly an observer, sitting on our observing chair, looking at the telescope eyepiece. However, there were floodlights pointing in his direction and he was therefore completely blinded whilst experiencing multi-coloured blobs floating in front of both eyes: his opportunity to see anything through the eyepiece of the telescope was nil!

The evening in question had started with the promise of a good observing session. The sky was a deep blue without a single cloud in sight, a spectacle rarely glimpsed on Wednesday evenings when we regularly open the Dome. A group from the National Association of Gifted Children was staying at Orwell Park School and had requested a visit to the Observatory. Soon after our arrival, a quiet discussion in the club room was interrupted by a woman appearing at the door looking completely lost and absent mindedly eyeing our blank display boards. Assuming she was an organiser from the visiting group we invited her in. Her first statement made no sense to anyone: I'm looking for the Questar Group and a film camera. Have you seen them? Martin Cook, John Hood and I scratched our heads, thinking why would someone want to bring a film camera and a Questar to the Observatory without telling anyone? (For the benefit of the uninitiated, a Quester is a very expensive American telescope.) A few sentences followed where the two parties found themselves talking completely at cross purposes. However, it transpired that Questar was the name of the group visiting the Observatory that evening, and some of their organisers were making a film of the group's activities during the week. We asked the woman to bring her group upstairs to the dome while we made our way there in advance to prepare for the onslaught of dozens of children.

Before the visitors arrived we opened the dome shutter and proceeded to climb up onto the roof of the stairwell, some 20 m above ground level and an excellent vantage point for observing the surrounding countryside. The Sun by this time had disappeared behind distant trees on the horizon, making sunspot observations impossible. Within 10 minutes we heard a noise emanating from the bottom of the spiral staircase, becoming louder by the second. At first, about 10 children arrived, along with someone carrying a very expensive camera, quickly followed by a wooden tripod large enough for a mobile 25 cm reflector, two floodlights with stands to match, a large portable reel-to-reel tape recorder together with a 60 cm long rifle mike and numerous mains extension leads. Before the film equipment could be assembled on one side of the telescope, the floor of the dome had filled with at least 40 children, eight group organisers and five society members. The noise quickly reached deafening levels and was only silenced when David Payne arrived and began to give details of the Orwell Park Refractor followed by a brief overview of the Solar System.

While David delivered his discourse, we attempted to locate Saturn with the Orwell Park Refractor. Moving the telescope and observing chair is an easy job in an empty dome. The problems in positioning everything when the floor is completely covered with people and equipment can only be appreciated if experienced! No matter how many times we asked the visitors politely to move, there were always some who were in the way. No sooner had we asked one group of children to come off the observing chair so that it could be moved, when a second group miraculously proceeded to clamber all over it again. In due course, however, we managed to find Saturn and form the children into an orderly queue so that everyone could have a look.

At this time the film crew, which numbered four, decided that it would be a good idea to film the Observatory from the outside, so proceeded to disassemble most of their kit and disappear downstairs. Why they did not film the outside of the Observatory during the afternoon when the Sun was out was never fully explained. After about half an hour, having presumably satisfied their desires, they returned.

The majority of visitors left after observing Saturn. This was when the film crew decided to start some serious work. Before each shot, they spent much time focusing the camera, re-adjusting the lights followed by prolonged waving about of an exposure meter. Having filmed several children at the eyepiece, they asked us to move the telescope. The members of the film crew had obviously not visited many observatories, because they endeavoured to dust the telescope with great energy, much to our amusement. Didn't they know that any self-respecting observatory is always covered in a layer of dust, brought about through lack of use of the equipment due to continuous inclement weather!

The two final shots involved opening the shutter and rotating the dome, along with suitable sound effects. The crew insisted on recording the sound of the shutter opening and closing, oblivious to the fact that it makes the same noise in both directions. When the sound recordist plays her tape back she will hear a continuous hum which she may put down to electrical interference: in fact, the telescope's electric drive had been inadvertently left on. Filming by this stage had taken over an hour by which time all society members present were beginning to get agitated about not being able to take full advantage of the best seeing conditions for many months. However, by 11.00pm the film crew had departed and we had the dome all to ourselves again.

Our first observing target after the departure of the film crew was Jupiter followed at a leisurely pace by M13 and M57. We could resolve stars almost to the centre of M13. If it had not been for the necessity of most observers to go to work the following morning, those present would have stayed until Orion had risen and attempted to find Halley's Comet. However, in the event, we closed the dome at 12.15am. Walking back to our cars, we noticed that the sky was clear enough to see stars to the naked eye limit of magnitude 6, and the Milky Way shone in its full splendour overhead.

Roy Gooding